At least sit up straight.

Photographer: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Origins of an Office Uprising

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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To sit or to stand? That is the question for a growing number of office workers, after a flurry of reports suggesting that remaining seated at a desk for long periods may be hazardous to your health, resulting in higher risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and, ultimately, premature death. The alarm is the reason human-resources departments are fielding demands for so-called standing desks, which supposedly make nine-to-five paper-pushing a bit less dangerous.

Rebellions against excessive sitting are nothing new. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Americans were gripped by fear that the shift to more sedentary lives of office workers would lead many to an early grave. Even then, these worries were well-grounded. But their intensity also reflected a deeper unease about the dramatic transformation of the nature of work in the modern age.

Two centuries ago, just one occupation, agriculture, employed more than 90 percent of the labor force. Life on the farm may sound like a lost idyll to today's urban-dwellers, but for many of those who worked the land, it often meant back-breaking drudgery on the border of subsistence. Little wonder that when given the opportunity to work in cities, either as clerks and office workers, or even as mill hands, many left the farm without a backward glance.

But they left behind more than a life of toil. They also lost a steady regimen of strenuous exercise. As a result, the celebrations of modern living soon became tinged with fears that the transition from the plow to the desk would leave these new “brain workers” enervated and weak, though these concerns often relied on some less-than-sound science.

“Man is naturally calculated to sustain severe and continuous labor,” wrote one commentator in 1859, “but when he spends the greater part of his time in bodily inaction, and more especially when at the same time his mind is at work, then in two different ways, the great rule of health is violated.”

There was something deeply unnatural -- even unmanly -- about the new way of work. Wholesome farm labor irrigated all parts of the body with life-giving blood. But brain work, apparently, was bad for, well, the head. When someone sat at a desk for two hours or more, the commentator wrote, “the blood must flow somewhere; and a good deal of it goes to the head -- not only what is necessary, as we have supposed, but more than that, and thus a tendency to congestion is established.”

Source: U.S. Patent Office

Conventional wisdom soon held that all manner of bad things would follow from sedentary work. One of the leading critics of sitting, Dr. Dudley Sargent, observed in 1886 that the "vigorous cerebral circulation" of brain workers was too much of a good thing, leading to a state of “passive congestion” as well as “confusion of ideas, inability to think, pain in the head, and other disagreeable effects." If left unchecked, it could “lead to the permanent impairment of the mind.”

Sargent, who would ultimately run Harvard University’s gymnasium, had grown up doing manual labor. He became convinced that the new generation of men who toiled at desks ran the risk of “dyspepsia, functional disturbance of the heart, sluggishness of the liver, and disease of the lungs.” Other reformers concurred, adding ailments such as “cold feet, the clogging of the wheel of the internal parts of the fleshy frame, and various shades of stomachic and cerebral discomfort.”

The solution, then as now, was straightforward: exercise throughout the day. Sargent went on to invent a series of exercise machines that, save for some antiquated features and materials, wouldn't be out of place in a CrossFit facility today. And for office workers unable to pop down to a gym for a workout, Sargent and his followers had more prosaic advice: Stand, don’t sit. 

“A man can think as well standing as sitting, often a little better,” wrote a protégé of Sargent, Professor William Blaikie, in 1874. Likewise, in 1901, Alice Worthington Winthrop counseled “brain workers” to have “two desks, at one of which they can do their work standing.” In fact, it was during this time that inventors patented special “standing desks” that could be adjusted up and down.

All this advice is getting a second life, and with good reason. The remedy, if not the diagnosis of potential health risks, remains valid, even if the medical reasoning has changed. Simply put, sitting motionless for long stretches of time is bad for the body and the mind.

But our renewed concern for the ill effects of sitting probably reflects our collective disquiet with the changing nature of work in this country. Not so long ago, many Americans labored at physically demanding jobs in the nation’s factories, mills and mines. But these have largely disappeared, increasingly replaced by rows upon rows of people sitting hunched over a computer screen.

For the most part, our working conditions are vastly improved. But something has been lost, too. And no amount of work standing up can change that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net